Debra Messing is not one of those actresses who order a salad, no dressing, and then just pick at it.
“She eats like a dude,” says Max Mutchnick, cocreator and producer of Will & Grace (1998–2006), the sitcom that made her a household name. “My favorite meals were at the Golden Globes when Debra would sit there, more glamorous than anyone in the room. Then, the minute she didn’t hear her name, she’d tear into an entire box of chocolates.”
Messing, 44, laughs long and loudly when I tell her what Mutchnick said. Sitting in the window seat at a café near her Manhattan apartment, she points to the empty spot on her plate where only a few stray crumbs remain from a hamburger. “Look what I just ate. I love food,” she says.
And, yes, she did use that Godiva gift box handed out at the Globes as a consolation prize when, six years in a row, she was nominated for Will & Grace but failed to win (she did nab a Best Actress Emmy in 2003 and chalked up four additional Emmy nominations for the show). “I knew it would get a laugh [at our table], and I’m a sucker for a laugh,” she says. “I would just start shoveling chocolate in my face because I’d been eating brown rice and salmon for weeks trying to fit into a dress that was a sample size and now it didn’t matter if the zipper popped because, hey, I didn’t win. I became a very good loser.”
Dressed in jeans and a hip-length bright-purple cardigan, she has gathered her distinctive dark-red hair into a ponytail. Over a long lunch, she talks (and laughs a lot) about winning and losing, fame, fear and change and how she has learned to deal with all of them.
Messing is a mix of serious—she chooses her words carefully and makes sure she fully covers all aspects of a topic—and funny, often self-deprecatingly so. She’s also practical. When the meal is over, she happily totes home a doggie bag containing her unfinished order of guacamole.
Only days before, Messing wrapped production on the second season of Smash, her struggling NBC series about Broadway professionals putting on a musical based on Marilyn Monroe. In the show, which boasts Steven Spielberg as a producer, she plays feisty Julia Houston, a lyricist and playwright.
The series’ February 2012 debut marked the end of one major chapter in Messing’s life and the start of a new one. She had relocated from Los Angeles to New York for Smash. “Moving back here was terrifying,” she says. “I had to pull my son [Roman, now nine] out of school. I was disrupting our lives to the core to take a job that I felt I just could not say no to.” Shortly after moving, she split with her husband of more than a decade, writer Daniel Zelman, who cocreated and produced the TV series Damages. “We both wanted it to last forever, and it’s a sad thing that it wasn’t able to go the course,” she says. “Part of me will always contend with guilt that I wasn’t able to give my son the fantasy that my parents”—who recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary—“were able to give me.”
Smash kicked off to enthusiastic reviews and solid ratings. Critics and fans, however, soon grew disenchanted with the personal melodrama of its story lines, including one in which the married Julia beds an actor played by Will Chase, whom Messing is now dating in real life. For its second season, both Smash and Messing’s character received makeovers—Julia’s husband, son and unflattering scarves all went -missing—but the reboot didn’t take. Ratings sank perilously low, and at the time of our lunch, a cancellation appeared all but certain. It is a prospect that fills Messing with sadness. “I loved Smash,” she says. “It made me happy to return to the world that first mesmerized me as a child: the lights and glamour of Broadway musicals.”
She remembers being five or six and, despite her fear of the garter snakes lurking in a swamp below, crossing a wobbly wooden-plank bridge to get to an island behind their house. Her father had dubbed it Gilligan’s Island, after the ’60s sitcom. “I honestly think I made it over because I wanted to be Ginger so badly,” she says, recalling the movie star among that show’s shipwrecked characters.
Messing was born in Brooklyn but moved at age three with her parents and older brother to East Greenwich, a small coastal town in Rhode Island. She first ventured onstage at age eight, portraying a blind girl in a play at summer camp: “I wanted to know what it was like to feel blind, so I rehearsed with my eyes closed—and fell into the orchestra pit.” Undeterred, she became a regular in school theatricals, adopted Fame(1980) as her how-to guide and set her sights on a stage career. “It’s the cliché: I didn’t feel entirely accepted as myself, and taking on another character, I felt completely free to be bold, eccentric and assertive,” she says.
She also competed in beauty pageants, winning the Miss Pre-Teen Rhode Island title, though her tiara was tarnished when classmates dubbed her Miss Latrine. As a senior, she entered the Junior Miss contest and won at the state level but failed to become a finalist in the national competition: “I learned that disappointment was a necessary part of the path I was taking.”
Geography dictated her college choice. After being rejected by her brother’s alma mater, Brown University, in nearby Providence, she opted for Brandeis in Waltham, Massachusetts, because it had an excellent theater program and “was close to home,” she says. “I was not brave enough to go very far.” She thrived in its competitive atmosphere (“You’d go to the library to get reference material, and it would be ripped out of the book so the next person couldn’t get it!”), graduated summa cum laude and then won a coveted spot in the graduate acting program at New York University. She loved the program, especially its emphasis on tackling roles that seemed an unlikely fit. “It was all about taking big risks and learning how to embrace failing big because the only way you were going to get better was by failing,” she says.
After getting her degree in 1993, Messing quickly landed a plum part in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest at a well-regarded theater in Seattle. But to her dismay, she soon realized she was a confirmed homebody: “I’m in this great theater in this great part, and I find myself profoundly homesick. I’m not a gypsy.”
The fledgling actress returned to New York and told her brand-new agents to go to Plan B: no more regional theater; only the Big Apple. “Their mouths dropped,” she says. Those same mouths closed once she began working steadily Off Broadway. Smaller roles in movies and TV followed, and by 1995 she was in Los Angeles, showing off her comic chops as a title character opposite Thomas Haden Church in Ned and Stacey, a little-seen Fox sitcom that eked out two seasons (1995–97).
Messing then turned down, repeatedly, the role that put her on Hollywood’s A-list: Grace Adler, the hilariously vain interior designer whose best friend and roommate, Will, is a gay man. “I didn’t want to be, for lack of a better word, a fag hag. And I didn’t want to be just the pretty, straight girl in the corner while the guys did all the funny stuff,” she says. She also worried that the gay characters would become buffoonish, as they often did on TV shows of the past. Cocreators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick descended on her house with a bottle of vodka and a lime and spent three increasingly sloshed hours persuading her. “So I took the leap and said, ‘Let’s do it,’ ” she recalls, “and it ended up the greatest thing to be a part of, a gift.”
Mutchnick says Messing brought much more to her character than was on paper. “Debra made Grace into an amazingly lovable person,” he says. “You felt bad she was hung up on a gay guy, using up so much emotional space on him, and she just seemed to play all that but without seeming pathetic.”
Messing also brought an endearing touch of klutz to Grace. “She has a lot in common with Lucille Ball: the ability to be this great leading lady but also brilliant with the physical comedy,” says Kohan.
She has never been an actress who simply learns her lines and says them. She’s too inquisitive for that. (Her third-grade teacher, Messing recalls, limited her to three questions a day in class, to give other kids a chance.) On the set, that proclivity for asking pointed questions has sometimes led to her being labeled difficult, but the actress contends that over the years she has become more diplomatic in quizzing colleagues. “I don’t need to be right,” she says, “but I do need to have a voice.”
The perils of celebrity became clear when W&G hit big. Messing developed an intense fear of the paparazzi, who congregated outside her house in L.A. Once, when a photographer jumped out from behind a car with a long lens, she mistook it for a gun and dived to the ground.
She eventually got a grip on that panic and also learned how to use her fame for the greater good. In 2009, Messing began working with YouthAIDS, an education and health initiative dedicated to stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS. That same year, she traveled to Zimbabwe as an ambassador of the organization. “It was the first time I was going away from my son for any significant amount of time,” she recalls, “so I explained to him that we were trying to help people who were sick or didn’t have money for food or clothes and I needed his help. We went through his closet, and he filled two duffel bags with sneakers and clothes.”
In Africa, Messing gave those duffel bags to a community of sex workers who were trying to find another way to support themselves and their children by selling used clothing. “To say thank you, they gave me dried ants, which were their only source of protein,” she says. Gamely, she ate them—“They tasted like popcorn”—but more than anything, Messing remembers it as “a very powerful and moving moment.”
On the personal front, celebrity is easier now. “I’m in my forties, so the media has a different interest in me than when I was 30,” she says. “It’s more about the journey, lessons and perspective, and that’s something I’m much more comfortable sharing.”
As long as we’re sharing, would she care to discuss dating Mr. Chase? Messing erupts in a huge laugh. Nope, nice try, but she’s not going there. (When Chase starred earlier this year in a Broadway revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, he included a “Love to Debra” shout-out in his program bio.)
She is more willing to discuss the dissolution of her marriage. She and Zelman wed in 2000, after falling for each other nine years earlier, when both were at NYU. The marriage floundered when they spent three years working on opposite coasts. Messing was in L.A. starring in the USA network’s The Starter Wife, and her husband was in New York producing Damages. “We really tried,” she says. “We made sacrifices and compromises, and in the end we both realized that we like the day-to-day domestic life.”
By the time they were both in New York, it was too late. “Now we are coparenting beautifully,” she says, mentioning that Zelman lives a few blocks from her. “We had Thanksgiving together. In my mind, we will be a nuclear family forever.”
Messing is committed to remaining in New York, where, she says, her son has flourished: “I think it has toughened him up a little and made him more independent.” She has signed to star in and coproduce a sitcom pilot for CBS in which she’ll play a woman prone to lying. If neither Smash, which has first priority, nor the pilot is picked up, what’s next? “I don’t know, I say with a smile on my face,” she says. “And it’s OK that I don’t know. I’m willing to wait for the thing that stirs my soul.”
To her surprise, the uncharted road ahead doesn’t frighten her. She has learned in the past few years that “as scary as change can be and as much as I might resist it, there’s always some unknown gift that comes out of it. I really never thought you could begin again. You can.” She pauses and then repeats, for emphasis, “You can!”
LEAH ROZEN last profiled Connie Britton for More.